Three Kings Day Has A Long, Royal History
By tradition, the visit of the Three Kings to the manger occurred on January 6, and this has become an important feast day on the Christian calendar. Names for this holiday include Epiphany, Twelfth Night, Little Christmas, Old Christmas and Three Kings Day.
The visit of the three resplendent monarchs is reported in the Bible only by St. Matthew, who, in the Greek of the New Testament, calls them “Magoi apo Anatolon” literally, “Magi from the East.” “Magi” and its singular form “magus” come from the Old Persian “magus” sorcerer, the same root that gives us our word “magic.”
English translations of the Bible rendered the Greek “Magoi apo Anatolon” as “Wise Men from the East”, and as early as the sixth century, they were being referred to as “Kings.”
The origins of the individual names of the Magi, Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar, are a mystery. Variants of these names for the Three Kings first appeared in the 600s, but we don’t know why or by whom they were chosen.
Gaspar (or Caspar, or Kaspar) was said to be the ruler of Tarsus. Balthasar was the ruler of Ethiopia, which is why he is often portrayed as dark-skinned, and Melchior was the ruler of Nubia and Arabia.
Each of the three kings was thought to represent a stage of life: Gaspar, a tall, ruddy and beardless youth; Balthasar, a swarthy and bearded middle-aged man; and Melchior, a wizened sage with a long beard.
During the Middle Ages in many parts of Europe, groups of boys would roam the streets on Epiphany singing carols and staging pageants involving the Magi. Often they would mark the houses they visited with crosses and the initials of the Three Kings – “K,” “M” and “B” – to protect these dwellings from harm during the coming year.
“Epiphany,” derived from the Greek root “phainein” (to bring to light), denotes a sudden revelation or manifestation. This same root lights up “emphasis,” “fantasy,” “diaphanous” and “sychophant” (someone who brings his smarmy flattery to light).
January 6 is called “Epiphany” because this date is associated with three key manifestations of Christ’s deity: the adoration of the Wise Men, his baptism with the voice from Heaven proclaiming his identity, and his first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee.
In a secular sense, “epiphany” has come to mean any sudden revelation of light or truth, often with a religious or spiritual overtone.
Another name for Epiphany, “Twelfth Night” is actually a misnomer. If you want to count days, the twelfth night of Christmas is January 5. Indeed, according to Ecclesiastical Order, the “First Vespers” of Epiphany are held after sunset on that date. But by tradition, Twelfth Night is celebrated at sunset January 6, technically the 13th night of Christmas.